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Not sure how to best write the question, I hope my explanation clears things up.

A while back, our startup (early stage) hired someone to help out with my responsibilities and during the negotiating process he requested a more prestigious title. So from outside the organization, it would appear the person was managing me, but in reality responsibilities were the same between us both. After a few months, he didn't quite live up to the task and was fired.

Fast forward several months, the startup is going through bad financial times and large amount of the staff were laid off (including me). It seems he is still looking for a new role and now I am looking too, there is a high chance we will be interviewing for the same roles at other companies, at least locally.

What is the best way to handle if a recruiter or potential manager asks what it was like working with him, should I be honest and say, he was let go for bad performance?

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    I cannot imagine a situation where a hiring manager would ask one candidate for a position to weigh in on a different candidate for the same position. That would be terribly unprofessional. If that's really your concern, I'd be pretty confident that it won't come up. – Justin Cave Jan 7 at 3:11
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    I totally agree (+1). If anyone did ask me, my first reply would be "I'd rather not say". If pushed, "I understand why you ask but hope that you will understand why I feel that it would be unprofessional of me to answer". If pushed further, walk - there are other jobs. – Mawg Jan 7 at 7:43
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    Welcome new user! the situation you describe is bizarre - just walk away – Fattie Jan 7 at 13:23
  • @JustinCave: Not that explicitly, no. But here it seems that the local labor market decided that both persons will be interviewing for the same role, and independently it is reasonable to expect that in both interview, one subject will be experiences in the previous job. If the interviewer puts 2 and 2 together, he'll notice the overlap in backgrounds. – MSalters Jan 7 at 13:54
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I cannot believe that anyone would be so unprofessional as to ask this.

If anyone did ask me, my first reply would be "I'd rather not say".

If pushed, "I understand why you ask, but hope that you will understand why I feel that it would be unprofessional of me to answer".

By now, even the thickest skinned should realize that they are not going to get an answer.

If pushed further, walk - there are other jobs.

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    Telling the truth can only make you look bad. – bruglesco Jan 7 at 8:41
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    I totally agree (+1). Just as repeatedly asking makes them look bad. I can forgive being asked once in this case, but pressing the matter certainly makes the questioner look bad. – Mawg Jan 7 at 9:22
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    I think that any person would understand “I would rather not say” as implying “I have nothing positive to say so I would rather not say anything”. I someone didn’t understand that and keep on pushing I would assume that they were considering hiring, or had made an offer, to the other person. in which case their hiring process is letting in low performance people and they are also asking unprofessional questions so you probably don’t want to work there. – simbo1905 Jan 7 at 13:15
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    I'm glad to know this would be a red flag for a company and should probably walk away from it. I enjoyed these answers, thank you. – James Jan 7 at 22:54
  • Feel free to accept an answer when you find one satisfactory, as doing so will help others who read the question in future. – Mawg Jan 8 at 7:21
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What is the best way to handle if a recruiter or potential manager asks what it was like working with him [coworker that was fired]? Should I be honest and say he was let go for bad performance?

I don't see how this scenario could come up. It's highly unprofessional to ask a candidate to evaluate another candidate. If, by some reason, this does come up during your interview process. I would be honest about your coworker's work and how he exited the company.

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As others have pointed out, it won't come up. And if for some reason it does, do not say anything negative. Just keep it brief and positive.

"Bob and I worked together briefly at Spacely Sprockets. We were on the same team together under the same manager. He seemed liked a nice guy, but we didn't work together very long. He left the company a few months before I did to explore another opportunity."

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Alternate Scenario #1 - They hire your former co-worker first and then interview you:

Interviewer: We've been impressed with the talent from Spacely Sprockets. We just hired Bob, who I think you may know. Did you guys work together?

Your answer is mostly the same as above. They've already asked your former co-worker about you anyway. So keep it positive.

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Alternate Scenario #2 - They hire you first, then consider your co-worker as a candidate:

Manager: "I see you and Bob worked at Spacely together for a brief period. What do you know about him? We're thinking about interviewing him."

Assuming you have already started at the company and have established working relationships, you can be more honest and open - especially if you do not really want to be working with him again.

  • I think this is a valuable answer because it brings up scenarios where there would be some legitimacy to someone asking the OP about "Bob." – dwizum Jan 7 at 16:42
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    I would not lie about how he left though. Just indicate you didn't work together long. – Bill Leeper Jan 7 at 17:32
  • I don't think anything suggested above equates to lying. "he left the company" is sufficiently vague. "we didn't work together that long" is just as good. – selbie Jan 7 at 21:41
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What is the best way to handle if a recruiter or potential manager asks what it was like working with him, should I be honest and say, he was let go for bad performance?

The only time that is at all likely to occur would be if they hired him first, then wanted to hire you to work for him. In that case, you should end the interview and move on to another opportunity.

In the exceedingly unlikely case that they did ask in question in some other context, just beg off of the question. "I'd rather not comment on that." is perfectly appropriate in this situation.

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Always be positive. You don't have to be specific -- and in this case you shouldn't be. In other words: Tell the truth, not necessarily all of it.

If pressed, there's always the response one manager-friend gave to someone asking for a reference: "You'll be really lucky to get him to work for you." That was completely honest, but only someone looking for it will see the warning sign.

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State "conflict of interest" / "bias"

I would say...

I would rather not answer that at all because of the conflict of interest / bias — in that we are applying for the same position — and the unfair advantage I would have in that you may value my words higher than theirs

No matter your best intentions, you are biased, and should be considered as such. Hence you should excuse yourself from even the possibility of being regarded as such and decline to answer on those reasons.

...which may work well for you in that it creates a good impression that you value fairness when you are in a position to otherwise create an advantage for yourself.

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This should never come up, at least not while you're both interviewees. Firstly, there's probably some kind of legal issue disclosing employment status of someone else (IANAL). Secondly, it's highly unprofessional; what if, for example, the other person wasn't actually unemployed, then you (the unrelated person) could contact their company and be like "hey, did you know Joe is interviewing behind your back?" That could cause a lot of problems for everyone involved.

It might come up once you're an employee at the company, in which case you should tell the truth. Don't speculate about things like "Joe was fired because..." unless you were actually in the meeting when he was terminated; you don't know what happened and are just making speculative guesses (you can't even be sure he was terminated unless you saw his termination notice, which you probably have not). However, mentioning things you did experience, positive or negative, are fair game.

If this question does come up during the interview:

1) You should not give a positive review. Giving a positive review gives them an excuse to hire him over you. You are both competing for the same job, and if you want the job, don't give him an edge. However, you don't want to give them the impression that you can't work together; perhaps they've already settled on hiring him, but want to know if you have some kind of history. If you don't particularly mind working with him, then you should give a neutral review to show that you can work together without giving him an edge.

2) You should try not to give a review at all, if you can avoid it. Don't badmouth others behind their backs, that's unprofessional. If they press you into answering, you should say something like "I'm really uncomfortable answering this question, but if you absolutely insist, then..."

3) Deprioritize any company that is unprofessional in this way. It's not their business for interviewees to evaluate each other.

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